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The Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade

By Kate Donnington | Posted 2nd July 2014, 12:50
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Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752
William Pettigrew
University of North Carolina Press   262pp   £36.95

From Peace to Freedom: 
Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Slavery, 1657-1761
Brycchan Carey
Yale University Press   257pp   £25

With the UK release of the film Twelve Years a Slave, the subject of Britain’s involvement in both slavery and abolition has once again entered mainstream public debate. It is timely then that we have two new editions to the scholarship. While Pettigrew examines the early years of British involvement in the slave trade, Carey takes on the origins of Quaker antislavery rhetoric. Despite coming from different ends of the spectrum, there are interesting links between the two texts. Both books deal with the period prior to the rise of British abolitionism (1787-1833), during which the Empire in the New World was expanding along with its reliance on slave labour. The authors make a powerful case for examining the years leading up to the abolition campaign as a means of understanding the arguments that later shaped it. Both contribute to a discussion about the contested meaning of freedom during a period in which western nations lauded themselves as liberal and democratic, while participating in a brutal system of human bondage. 

Pettigrew’s work is a much needed examination of the political and economic underpinnings of the early years of the British slave trade. Building on work by K.G. Davies into the Royal African Company (RAC), Pettigrew charts the rise and fall of the RAC from its initial royal charter through to its eventual decline with the loss of its trade monopoly. He makes a compelling case for placing the struggle between the RAC and the independent traders within the context of both the Glorious and Financial Revolutions, as well as the political divisions between Whig and Tory. 

Pettigrew analyses the use of classical liberal concepts of economic freedom by those outside the RAC, who argued that freeborn men had the right to trade without state interference. Put simply, the English should be free to enslave. In this sense he challenges the reader to think about what freedom meant and to whom, when monopoly vied with free trade and slavery with free labour.

Freedom’s Debt is a scholarly study that should appeal particularly to those interested in the legal and political frameworks through which the British slave trade was established and maintained. Given the recent announcement by Caricom that it will seek to make a case for government to government reparations for the slave trade and slavery, Pettigrew’s work contributes to a greater understanding of the British state’s involvement with the trade.

Moving away from Britain to colonial America, Carey’s book adopts the approaches of both literary history and criticism to offer an analysis of early Quaker attitudes to and articulations of antislavery. Rejecting a traditional historiographical emphasis on the 1750s as the turning point for Quaker antislavery, Carey argues that ‘a sustained debate over slaveholding subsisted among colonial Quakers from at least the 17th century’. This was what enabled the Quakers to take this message out to the world in the 1750s.

Carey moves between different geographic locations, his structure hinting at a nascent ‘Quaker Antislavery International’; beginning in Barbados, with George Fox and Alice Curwen, he shifts the focus to Pennsylvania before examining the ways in which the rhetoric developed in the colonial ‘periphery’ impacted on the mainstream politics of the metropole. He examines the role of both Quaker religious structure as well as belief in his analysis of why they were early in their antislavery sentiment. 

Carey’s style is engaging and readable, his considered interpretation of the sources emphasises their intertextual nature. Alongside this, his examination of the minutes of the Quaker meetings gesture towards the role of discussion and debate in the formulation of rhetoric. With generous quotations from rare or inaccessible documents, this offers a detailed insight into how the Quakers in America laid down a rhetorical foundation, which later went on to influence antislavery arguments in Britain.

Katie Donington is a Research Associate for the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project at University College London. She is co-author of the project’s book Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial slavery and the formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 2014).


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